The Modern Naughty Dog Conundrum

The Modern Naughty Dog Conundrum

It’s easy to see why the gaming industry is enamored with Naughty Dog. They consistently deliver high-quality experiences that make contemporaries feel like they’re five years behind the times whether it’s technology or writing or animation. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was among the first games to record audio and mocap simultaneously within the same session, leading to performances that felt more genuine. They’ve always been pushing what the medium can do. With that said, Naughty Dog’s astronomical status is beginning to influence them negatively, as they prioritize better animations and slick cinematics over purposeful design. While The Last of Us became a cultural icon, it was Uncharted 2 that catapulted them from a quality first-party studio to an integral piece of Sony’s portfolio.

It became a watershed moment in 2009, signaling an industry-wide shift. Uncharted 2 popularized meaningful in-game dialogue. While many games before it featured voice-over during gameplay segments, they typically acted as sign-posting–as in directing the player as to where to go or what to do.  When characters spoke, they’d make comments such as “That gate is over there!” or “we need to open that door”. This type of dialogue typically permeated the industry pre-Uncharted 2, leading to  a disconnect between characters and their adventure. They so rarely made utterances that drove the plot or understanding of a game’s characters forward. Uncharted 2 was the first major game in which characters made regular on-brand remarks outside cutscenes. Uttering phrases such as “nice parking job” sarcastically to a truck crashed through a building and “kitty got wet!” after drop-kicking enemies—these moments added a layer of believability to its characters beyond highly produced cinematics. Twelve years later, nearly every character makes non-critical remarks during gameplay.

This penchant for characterization has been the single thread running through Naughty Dog’s varied genre history.  The Last of Us succeeded critically and commercially because of its characters. It’s unfortunate, then, to see modern Naughty Dog lose sight of its element. Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us Part 2 are great games viewed in isolation. In comparison to the studio’s past efforts, though, there’s a sense they’re mismanaging their unlimited resources as Sony’s top dog.

The Naughty Dog Descent

Uncharted 4 ushered in the eighth-generation in a significant way. While pretty games released beforehand, it set new standards for game technology in 2015. Uncharted 4 was the first notable AAA eighth-gen game to use the additional horsepower for something other than higher resolutions, better textures and higher polygon counts. More important than the massive jump in rendering quality, Naughty Dog’s use of PS4 hardware added immersion through tiny details. These included touches such as much more realistic animations with superb animation blending, making transitions between disparate animation sets during combat feel seamless. Players could shoot at rocks near the top of a slope, causing a rockslide as it pushed rocks underneath along with it. There’s also the infamous sandbag from the E3 demo that drains as bullets penetrate it. 

This level of immersion combined with the set-pieces and emotional weight of the story as Nathan Drake’s conclusion led to critical acclaim that was too distracted by the next-gen sheen to properly address its glaring flaws.

Uncharted 4 is twice as long as the longest Uncharted game. This goes against the Uncharted structure. The series drew inspiration from classic adventure serials, which were bite-sized chunks of self-contained stories audiences would see before a movie played in theaters. Think of each Uncharted entry as a chapter within a serial. The genre emphasized brisk pacing in service of getting to the fun bits.  The franchise serviced this structure in part because of its appropriate length. The first three games understand their place, using brevity to push the narrative and action sequences forward because, at the end of the day, Uncharted isn’t meant to be a cinematic work of art. It’s always been the equivalent to a popcorn flick—there are pretty sights, big explosions, and endearing moments in service of having a good time.

Uncharted 4 misunderstands this with its length, partially informed by the cinematic direction that made The Last of Us successful. It takes its bog-standard artifacts and lost cities with one-dimensional villains too seriously. Prior entries used humor as the driving force behind their script. The lack of originality was set-dressing that put characters in situations whereby snarky quips and outlandish banter such as “I’m sweating like a hooker in church” could exist. Uncharted 4 sprinkles humor infrequently through its roughly eighteen hour story, emphasizing human drama in a way that doesn’t fit its world.

It worked with The Last of Us because while the setting wasn’t original, its characters were nuanced. By contrast, Uncharted characters almost always leaned into their schticks. All of a sudden, we’re expected to believe the story behind Sam Drake being poofed out of thin air five games deep, counting Golden Abyss? Every entry pulled characters out of its ass with deep ties to Nathan’s history, but it didn’t matter because they were shut your brain off experiences. With Uncharted 4’s constant introspection of Nathan’s psyche and his interpersonal relationships, Sam’s sudden appearance feels misplaced. It’s inconceivable that Nathan Drake having a brother wouldn’t have at least been vaguely alluded to at any point during the motion comic or four games preceding it.

While there is an emotional pay-off by the story’s conclusion, the moment to moment narrative fails by attempting to provide depth to characters that have had few dimensions for so long.

Beyond this narrative disconnect, Uncharted 4’s biggest failing is its reigned-in action. The series consists of three pillars—combat, exploration, and puzzle solving. Exploration was never the series’ strongest suit because of its linearity and automation, but it’s the pillar it relies on most, with combat being minimized to worrying degrees. Uncharted 2 was revelatory in 2009 for more than its in-game characterization. This isn’t to say its characters were ever deep, but audiences got to know them better through their in-game banter. It formed a greater sense of the archetypes that define them beyond the thirty to ninety second cutscenes that usually existed to push the plot forward. The moments during which characters stood at the forefront were gameplay. Uncharted 2’s Nepal warzone is an excellent example of defining its characters within their archetypes. Nathan and Chloe end up on a hotel roof with a pool overlooking the destroyed city. If players chose to dive in, it would trigger a back and forth during which Nathan attempts to play Marco Polo, to which Chloe reluctantly sighs, “You are so unprofessional”. After leaving the pool, Nathan yells “Fish out of water!” in the most child-like giddy inflection he’s ever had. This moment didn’t add depth to Nathan Drake’s character. It added a greater sense of connection between the player and its characters by treating gameplay and dialogue as complementary. 

Uncharted 2 shamed the competition with its active cinematic set-pieces, emphasizing player-control and real-time elements to a degree few blockbuster games in its day could compete with. With a new generation to tap into, Uncharted 4 had the potential to wow with its action, but there are less set-pieces than the second and third games. The major set-piece, the Madagascar chase, remains among the franchise’s most exciting sequences. Unfortunately, there’s only that and the watchtower sequence with the Nadine fight interwoven.

Uncharted 4 is a master-class in polish, but it takes too much inspiration from The Last of Us, diluting the Uncharted franchise’s strengths in the process with its tonal shift. Franchises changing direction is great for the industry because variety is its greatest strength, but adding sudden dimensions to archetypal one-note characters after four games doesn’t work. Uncharted 3 encroached upon this territory, but it understood its property enough to pull back before the experience took itself too seriously. Many audiences connect with properties that don’t have the deepest characters or plots or most nuanced messaging because of the time they spend with characters they enjoy. It’s only human.

Uncharted 3 acted as a pseudo-finale (then Uncharted 4 happened), that pulled at some emotional strings because it was the end to a highly-polished AAA experience that went on to define Sony’s current character/narrative-driven strategy. It provided closure between Nathan and Elena’s relationship. As for Nathan and Sully, the conclusion reveled in tying its emotional weight to audiences’ expectations of these characters. Nathan plays off Sully giving him the ring he thought he lost as a proposal. The closing lines play out in this manner as the trio walk toward a plane into the sunset:

Elena: “Hey, this thing has parachutes, right” 

Sully: “Oh, yeah!”

Nathan: “Three?”

Sully: “Eh, more or less”

The emotional center lies within making light of the first game’s plane crash while remaining in its comedic element. Even in its most endearing moments, Naughty Dog understands how to use its archetypes. Sully is still the same old kind-of dependable but not really old fart as he was in the first game, but that’s okay its self-awareness is for the fans. Uncharted 2 also book-ended its romantic interaction between Elena and Nathan with an argument over whether he was more scared of clowns or of losing Elena. 

These moments are endearing pay-offs for fans of this archetypal approach to characterization. Archetypes aren’t inherently poor writing. They’re tools that can be mismanaged, but Naughty Dog knew how to make effective use of them through constant self-referential winks and pay-offs to fans in the midst of some of the emotional moments and high-octane sequences. 

The Last of Us Part 2

As the gaming industry grows, there’s a larger push toward cinematic experiences. Sony’s previously varied portfolio that included titles such as Ape Escape and Metal Gear Solid within the same breadth has slowly coalesced into a more singular vision–one focused on polished cinematics and character-driven narratives. As more powerful hardware realizes better visuals and animations, these kinds of experiences draw more attention from casual gamers and non-gamers. These types of games have some of the broadest reach, making them intelligent investments. However, simply being cinematic sometimes leads to a free pass from legitimate criticism–a space modern Naugthy Dog finds itself in as one of the industry’s most respected studios. 

The Last of Us Part 2 exacerbates Naughty Dog’s current obsession with length, clocking in at around twenty-five hours. This length works for many genres. Game length is not an equal-sum. There aren’t clear-cut standards for length because a game’s length should be defined by various aspects ranging from its narrative to its genre. What story is it telling? How long does this story need to be? What genre is this? How deep are the mechanics? How are the narrative and gameplay elements going to be mixed together. RPG’s can afford to be upwards of one-hundred hours long because they tend to deal with broad-strokes–saving the world, etc…These simple plots provide enough leeway to mix various subplots and detours without feeling cheap. Additionally, RPG’s have several more mechanics than most genres. As a game layers deeper and deeper systems, it needs to extend its length to allow those systems to exist. 

The Last of Us Part 2 is not an RPG or a character action game with extreme levels of nuance. It’s a stealth/shooter hybrid that capitalizes on its survival aspects, with tense combat scenarios. It’s constantly pushing players, leveraging the balancing of power dynamic the first game introduced to a greater degree. There’s never any safety, but on a fundamental level, neither its stealth nor its combat are deep enough to warrant such length. 

This absurd length is bolstered by the removal of the studio’s greatest strength—contextual character building.

The Last of Us Part 2’s best moments highlight why Naughty Dog is in such a lofty position. When they’re at their best, they linger on subtleties in ways no AAA developer dares to for fear of boring audiences or leaving too much to interpretation. These highs are counter-balanced by an equal force of lows. The sequel to one of the industry’s critical darlings loves to waste time, failing to do anything meaningful with its stretches between plot-beats. As with many games, the character’s expected critical path is often gated by roadblocks, requiring detours. Because The Last of Us Part 2 so rarely makes use of these detours as opportunities to further build its characters in-game, they end up feeling like padding. 

Unlike its predecessor, there is little in-game dialogue. Ellie spends a surprising amount of time alone. This worked for Nathan Drake, as his wise-cracking antics broke up the monotony that could set in between major beats. Ellie isn’t that kind of person, which isn’t a fault in and of itself. The issue stems from the lack of interaction when companions are present. With less dialogue back and forth during gameplay, Naughty Dog heavily relies on its cinematics to illuminate its characters, but that’s not enough. Remember when Ellie would try to whistle throughout the first game? Remember the excitement in her voice when she finally got it hours later? This seemingly inconsequential series of dialogue interactions bolstered Joel and Ellie’s evolving dynamic. 

The Last of Us Part 2 has nothing like this. That isn’t to say some character-building doesn’t exist, but it’s pulled back to a similar extent Uncharted 4’s set-pieces were reigned in over its predecessors. More often than not, in-game dialogue is used as signposting, a shocking reversion from the studio that popularized characterization during gameplay. When Ellie is paired with a companion, most of the dialogue exists to signal to players where they need to go or what they need to do. There’s little of the minutiae prevalent in the first title, filled with so many contextual conversations adding weight to the plot and character arcs. At one point, players come upon a couple in a tub that had committed suicide. Ellie remarks that they must have taken the easy way out, to which Joel replies “Believe me, it ain’t easy”. The line’s delivery sells this minor interaction, providing a sense into Joel’s psyche. The pain in his voice implies he’s either been around suicide, attempted it himself, or had to mercy kill past loved ones. This isn’t a cinematic. It’s a contextual conversation that’s easy to miss, but it’s the tiny moments that cemented its predecessor’s significance. The Last of Us’ nuance came from more than just facial expressions, mannerisms, and light dialogue in cinematics. These subtle in-game moments are just as important as the bigger moments such as when Joel glances at his broken watch in cutscenes or when the sound cuts off as Ellie repeatedly slashes at David’s face. 

This is what makes The Last of Us Part 2’s silence so deafening. With even better visuals, audio design, and animations, contextual in-game character-building moments to these effect had the capacity to impress even more. Characters could make more realistic facial animations in-game, selling a line’s delivery even better than before.  Naughty Dog was once the proponent of using cinematics as a last resort—a mantra followed by the original game. The Last of Us Part 2, however, feels like a reversal. Its cinematics are so integral and its silence so prominent that in-game character building is used as a last resort. Whereas many of the first game’s defining moments occurred in real-time, you’d be hard-pressed to mention narrative beats or character defining moments outside of cinematics in the sequel. Moments such as when Ellie asks Joel how he knew about the ambush in the first game. Joel replies with “I’ve been on both sides”. This interaction provides huge insight into Joel’s past without laying it on too thick, but it plays out during gameplay, which its sequel rarely leans into. 

In The Last of Us Part 2’s case, narrative is game design. Every element, including its combat, exists to reinforce the story’s themes. The world’s relentless nature is effectively communicated through stressful enemy encounters. It unfortunately doesn’t make use of the subtle in-game character moments that have made Naughty Dog special often enough. Rather than using cinematics as a last resort when an idea can’t be communicated in-game, The Last of Us Part 2 revels in its long cutscenes. Many relying on memory would be shocked to find out how few cinematics in the first game are two minutes or longer. Most of the story and its themes were told in-game. The Last of Us Part 2’s museum flashback/Ellie’s birthday section is so critically lauded because its emotional weight is carried almost entirely through gameplay. 

Naughty Dog Today

Uncharted 4 suffers from almost the opposite problem. It tries to ape The Last of Us with tons of cutscenes and stretches whereby characters have serious conversations while exploring. Unfortunately, its characters aren’t deep enough to sustain a script so obsessed with examining Nathan Drake. The relationship between Sam and Drake also feels un-earned because of his inconceivable appearance. Random characters showing up didn’t register in prior entries because their self-aware nature afforded them a suspension of disbelief. Uncharted 4 doesn’t have this same affordance as it fails to find the balance between humanity and dumb fun the other games did. It also fails to expand upon set-pieces, one of the franchise’s biggest contributions to gaming–active-cinematic experiences. The uneven distribution between Uncharted’s pillars make it a missed opportunity, failing to capture the “charm, action, and spirit” of the classic adventures that inspired them, but it’s easy to be distracted by the first game of that generation that felt next-gen. 

Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us Part 2 are great games. They offer a level of polish other studios can only dream of, enhancing the player experience with their extreme attention to detail. If only that attention to detail didn’t come at the expense of carefully considered game design emphasizing the studio’s greatest strengths–something Naughty Dog used to balance gracefully. 

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